The Critical Role of Resilient Design in Post-Disaster Reconstruction

The architect Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz on how strategies for resiliency help communities withstand the impact of natural disasters.

Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz. Image courtesy of Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón

Post-disaster reconstruction should focus on more than just the rebuilding of damaged and destroyed structures and cities. It also provides an opportunity to employ improved design methods, construction techniques and materials that will create stronger and more sustainable buildings.

By utilizing resilient design, buildings and communities are better positioned to withstand the regional and local impacts that future climate conditions and natural disasters can bring.

Building Resilient Cities

More than half of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, according to the 2018 revision of the United Nations’ World Urbanization Prospects report, and that figure is expected to grow to 68 percent by 2050. Given the overcrowding and poverty that exists in many cities, architects must design environments that reduce risk and mitigate damage from both natural and manmade disasters. It is also important to invest in design practices that can function apart from the electrical grid, such as backup solar systems and replenishable water resources.

Furthermore, cities should invest in community facilities that can serve as gathering places during emergencies and interruptions in services, and provide them with access to fresh water, emergency electricity and other key services. At the regional level, it is essential to invest in critical infrastructure such as water, sewer and renewable energy to ensure a more stable distributed infrastructure.

In the case of Puerto Rico, which suffered greatly from the devastation of Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma (and more recently experienced severe damage caused by a series of earthquakes), we have seen an opportunity to develop adequate, sustainable and resilient housing to withstand future catastrophic events, and provide long-term value for generations to come.

One example is Renaissance Square in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The recently completed project is the first mixed-income public housing development in Puerto Rico. Following Energy Star parameters, the buildings are designed to take full advantage of existing sun and wind path patterns to maximize natural light, cross ventilation and overall energy efficiencies throughout the day, and rooftops feature photovoltaic solar panels to offset traditional electricity costs and minimize the community’s carbon footprint.

Construction also recently began on the Jose Gautier Benitez Development, a new mixed-use and mixed income housing community that will be located on the site of a former housing project in Caguas, Puerto Rico. The 21-acre development is divided into six residential blocks, including five streets dedicated to family housing, and one reserved exclusively for elderly housing. In anticipation of possible further storms on the island, the development was designed with energy conservation and resiliency measures in mind, including insulated stormproof windows, environmentally conscious building materials and methods, energy efficient appliances, photovoltaic panels, and emergency power generation.

One way of improving the post-disaster reconstruction process is to not depend solely on government relief and foreign aid, but also involve local residents, builders and materials, which can provide a much needed boost to the local economy. Moreover, it is essential to develop a long-term vision that focuses on resilient design investments and policies, rather than short-term fixes.

Permanent, Sustainable Housing

Temporary shelters are meant to be just that: temporary. Yet many urban and rural communities endure years of inadequate housing after a disaster. In Haiti, for example, some people are still living in tents set up following the 2010 earthquake there. When used as a permanent solution, this type of housing often turns into slums.

In Puerto Rico, as many as half of all housing units were built without permits and without the use of an architect or engineer, according to government officials. In general, building permanent, sustainable housing for the affected population should be a priority for teams charged with reconstruction after catastrophic natural disasters.

Post-disaster housing must also be well adapted to the area’s cultural, social and environmental norms, or it will not serve as adequate shelter for that population. Therefore, it is essential to work closely with communities to understand their way of life, traditions and priorities.

While designing for post-disaster reconstruction, architects and planners must focus on quality and sustainable solutions, not just deadlines. To avoid having to surrender to time constraints while rebuilding, it is imperative to develop pre-disaster reconstruction programs that can be implemented when disaster strikes.

Rebuilding Resources

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s publication Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction (FEMA 421), developed in partnership with the American Planning Association, introduces community planners to policies for rebuilding and recovery after disasters, and provides guidance on how to plan for post-disaster reconstruction. This document equips planners, and others involved in post-disaster reconstruction at all levels of government, with the tools needed to create or recreate communities that will withstand natural disasters.  

In 2019, as a response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Enterprise Communities, along with the Puerto Rico Builder’s Association, the University of Puerto Rico, Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón  and other partners, published a free, first-of-its-kind illustrated manual titled Keep Safe: A guide for resilient housing in island communities.

The American Institute of Architects’ Disaster Assistance Handbook, published in 2017, is also a go-to resource for architects, built environments professionals, municipal government officials and emergency managers involved in disaster mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery. The handbook shows architects how they can work with local governments to prepare for and respond to disasters, and how they can help enhance community resilience through individual client projects and participation in broader planning efforts.

As federal funds for disaster relief continue to be reduced, both local governments and the private sector must better prepare for the future. Amid the numerous negative, undesirable and tragic consequences of natural disasters, a commitment to resilient design results in better, stronger built environments and communities.

Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz, AIA is an award winning architect & co-founder of Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón, one of the most successful architecture, planning and interior design firms in the southern region. He is an expert in resilience, sustainability and affordable housing issues. He also served as a liaison between the private sector and FEMA on critical infrastructure, construction and housing issues.

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